MP4 Replaces MP3 on the Haredi Contraband List

"Terrorists! Terrorists!" shouted the boys. In the early afternoon, with the sun playing games with their senses, passersby in Jerusalem's Sabbath Square thought for a moment that some devilish Arabs had holed up in the small store. A closer look, however, revealed none other than the "Sicarii," a radical Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) group from the capital's Mea She'arim neighborhood, demonstrating against some new perceived threat to religious observance.

The group had declared holy war on the MP4, the portable digital video player that can be used for viewing movies. When one of the demonstrators yelled, "terrorists, terrorists are hiding in this store," he was actually referring to the harried sales staff who sell the "impure device" in broad daylight.

Even though MP4s are sold at several stores in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood, the anger was directed at this particular store because it dared advertise its wares in a Haredi newspaper.

Unsigned posters reading "Prepare for the great campaign to stop the corruption" have appeared throughout the neighborhood in recent weeks, denouncing the store for openly advertising "reviled devices that drag all who touch them toward danger."

The store's owners say they have already removed the offending devices from the shelves, but refused a demand by the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit's rabbinical court to sign a commitment not to sell them. This week, the court is due to decide whether to declare a boycott of the store.

The Sicarii, however, are not waiting for the court ruling. They demonstrate almost daily outside the store, and are suspected of being behind the torching of the store's workshop, located on adjacent premises. The sales staff called the police, but lamented that "only [hired] Russian thugs" would be capable of holding back the demonstrators. The police have not lifted a finger on previous occasions, the salesmen complained.

Not far from this store is another, which sells Hasidic music. A long queue of men can be seen at almost all hours of the day, waiting in line at the computer that the owners set up in the middle of the store a few months ago. The men are downloading Torah lectures onto MP3 players, which can only be used for recording and listening to audio files.

The 50 meters that separate the two stores represent the long road the MP3 has traversed - from a device reviled by the Haredi public's gatekeepers to a must-have item for every yeshiva student.

An amusing video clip circulating on the Internet shows an ultra-Orthodox rabbi preparing to give a lecture. The table in front of him is quickly piled up with MP3 players set to record the lecture. When the rabbi raises his eyes, he discovers the room is empty. Unperturbed, he takes out his own MP3, presses the Play button, and leaves the room.

Kol Halashon, an organization in Bnei Brak, picked up on this idea. It has built an immense audio library of thousands of lectures by rabbis, on Torah, Talmud, halakha (Jewish law), ethics, education, even eulogies for deceased rabbis.

The lectures are available in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, French, Russian and Spanish, and there are even converted digital files of lectures of revered rabbis who died years ago, like Rabbi Eliezer Shach.

In addition, computer stations for downloading lectures have been set up in yeshivas, Gal-Paz music stores and even Ben-Gurion Airport. Ultra-Orthodox communities abroad have similar stations.

"This is an ingenious idea," said Natan Ivgy of the Geula branch of Gal-Paz. "Sometimes there is a queue of 10 to 20 men waiting to fill their devices. It bothers our customers a bit, but as long as it's for a mitzvah [good deed], no one complains."

Why does the music store offer this free service? "Many tourists come here from abroad. They download lectures and buy music at the same time."

Aharon Weisfish, a Jerusalem yeshiva student, filled his MP3 with Talmud lectures last week. "I downloaded an entire volume of Talmud," he said.

For him, the player is worth money:

"When I travel from one place to another, I listen to lectures. Once, this time was wasted; now, I use all that time. For me, it is also worth money, because every month I prepare for an exam on 30 pages of Talmud and can win a scholarship thanks to the MP3."

Why are audio players allowed while video players are banned? Because films are much more dangerous. The distance between the stores, however, also reflects the inexplicable contradictions in the ultra-Orthodox attitude toward technology. Why was the cellular telephone endorsed and SMS disqualified? How did the MP3, until recently considered a detestable device, suddenly become acceptable, and what will the ultimate fate of the Internet be?

One of the salespeople in the MP4 store offered this frustrated answer: "The ultra-Orthodox public suffers a high dropout rate from its yeshivas and is constantly looking for a scapegoat. Today, it's the MP4."

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